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Protocols, APIs, and conventions | InfoWorld


The fediverse is wired together by protocols like ActivityPub and WebFinger which, as yet, I know very little about. That’s because the Steampipe plugin, which supports the dashboards I’ve been building and describing in this series, doesn’t require me to understand or use those protocols.

It does, however, require me to understand and use the Mastodon API. Mostly I use that API by way of the Go SDK for Mastodon (thanks, mattn!), sometimes I make REST calls directly. Either way, my read-only dashboards use a fairly small subset of the Mastodon API. The full API is quite broad and deep; it enables API clients to read from and write to Mastodon servers in all sorts of ways. Here are the chapters of the Mastodon API book: apps, accounts, admin, instance, search, statuses, timelines, notifications, oembed. These chapters define what’s common to all Mastodon clients, including web apps, phone apps, native OS apps, and Steampipe dashboards.

So far I’ve ignored protocol-enabled interop in order to focus on API-enabled interop. I’m aware that the fediverse includes much more than just Mastodon. I intend to explore BookWrym, Friendica, Funkwhale, Lemmy, takahe, PeerTube, Pixelfed, PeerTube, and others in due time. But right now the Mastodon ecosystem is plenty to try to wrap my head around.

For example, there’s a new web client for Mastodon: elk.zone. With the recent addition of support for lists, it has become my favorite way to interact in Mastodon space. So naturally I wanted to be able to click through from Steampipe dashboards to Elk, and use it as an alternative to the batteries-included Mastodon web app.

It turned out to be easy to enable that integration. Not thanks to ActivityPub, and not even thanks to the API. It works thanks to a third level of interop at play: common patterns for account URLs and toot URLs.

Here’s the account URL for Ward Cunningham who hangs his shingle at mastodon.radio: https://mastodon.radio/@k9ox. But as we saw in instance-qualified Mastodon URLs, if you visit that URL directly—and if it’s not your home server—you can’t follow Ward there, or add him to a list. You’ll need to copy that URL, paste it into your home server’s search box, run the search, and arrive at an instance-qualified URL where you can follow him or add him to a list: https://mastodon.social/@k9ox@mastodon.radio. If you’re home is fosstodon.org this would instead be https://fosstodon.org/@k9ox@mastodon.radio.

Similarly here is one of Ward’s toots at mastodon.radio: https://mastodon.radio/@k9ox/109802968820955379. If you want to reply or boost or favorite, you can’t do it there. The URL you need is again one that routes through your home server: https://mastodon.social/@k9ox@mastodon.radio/109802969999396562. Note that the IDs for the same toot differ! That difference surprised me and some others, and is a topic for another episode. Here I’ll just note that these two patterns govern how we interact when crossing server boundaries in Mastodon space using the stock web client.

When I started using Elk, another layer of pattern emerged. Here are those same URLs in Elk:

https://elk.zone/mastodon.social/@k9ox@mastodon.radio

https://elk.zone/mastodon.social/@k9ox@mastodon.radio/109802969999396562

As it turns out, I just needed to make two of the Steampipe plugin’s transform functions prepend elk.zone to the instance-qualified URLs, then make such prefixing a configuration option. Now when I visit Mastodon links from dashboards, to reply or boost or follow or enlist, I land in the Elk experience that I prefer.

ActivityPub and WebFinger are formal standards. I would describe the Mastodon API as a de-facto standard. But this prefixing maneuver is just a convention. It’s not guaranteed to work with another web client, and not even guaranteed to work across all URLs presented by the stock Mastodon client. That’s OK by me. Conventions are incredibly useful. The Twitter hashtag is just a convention, after all, inspired in turn by an IRC convention.

We’re in one of those internet moments of rapid innovation, when new conventions can unlock emergent behaviors. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Steampipe dashboards could support Elk. A few hours after I thought they might, they did. I’ve seen this kind of thing before, perhaps most notably when the blogosophere adopted <link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" href="https://www.infoworld.com/article/3687637/{feedUrl}"> to enable browsers to auto-discover RSS feeds. That happened about 20 years ago, and quite suddenly when a handful of leading blogging tools adopted the convention in a matter of days. It was a lot of fun to live through that era. If you missed it, enjoy the sequel that’s unfolding now!

This series:

  1. Autonomy, packet size, friction, fanout, and velocity
  2. Build a Mastodon dashboard with Steampipe
  3. Browsing the fediverse
  4. A Bloomberg terminal for Mastodon
  5. Create your own Mastodon UX
  6. Lists and people on Mastodon
  7. How many people in my Mastodon feed also tweeted today?
  8. Instance-qualified Mastodon URLs
  9. Mastodon relationship graphs
  10. Working with Mastodon lists
  11. Images considered harmful (sometimes)
  12. Mapping the wider fediverse
  13. Protocols, APIs, and conventions

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